Aug 21

Hornet Celebrates 50th Anniversary of Apollo 11 Splashdown

Wednesday, August 21, 2019 12:01 AM

By

Carefully, a young boy balances his right foot inside the painted outline of a larger foot, then he jumps to the next painted footprint. He’s following the footprints across the floor of the hangar deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, now a museum, berthed at Alameda, California.

USS Hornet recovered the astronauts from the first moon landing mission, Apollo 11, on 24 July 1969
(NHHC)

This is the carrier that recovered the astronauts of Apollo 11: Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, the first men to walk on the moon, and Michael Collins, pilot of the command module. The boy is following their path from the helicopter that picked them up from the Pacific Ocean, then across the hangar deck to the decontamination unit, a modified Airstream travel trailer.

(Courtesy of the Author)

Fifty years ago, 24 July 1969.

Recovered Apollo 11 Module, USS Hornet
By Cliff Young
(NHHC)

The boy tries to avoid visitors strolling through the hangar bay to see the exhibits, or heading up to the flight deck to look at the F-4 Phantom or S -3 Viking or the SH-3D Sea King helo on display, or perhaps downstairs to visit a squadron ready room. It’s a busy place, hosting 4,000 plus people to celebrate the successful recovery of the Apollo 11 astronauts.

I am wearing two hats. One as a journalist and the other as the wife of Zeke Zetterberg, who in 1969 was the pilot in command of the E-1B Tracer electronics aircraft and who, at 8,000 feet, unexpectedly came within 1,000 feet of the streaming parachutes of the astronauts’ command module as they popped out in front of his aircraft. (See “Near Miss of Apollo 11,” Proceedings, July 2019.)

Wearing biological isolation garments, the crew of Apollo 11 is escorted to the Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF) to ensure that they did not bring back any contaminants back from the moon. By Cliff Young
(NHHC)

On the flight deck, I see Zeke, happily examining the handful of airplanes tied down on the deck that once held nearly 70 aircraft: jets, propeller-driven, and helicopters. I walk the deck between the island and the edge of the ship, where Zeke had to put down his E-1B to catch the arresting cable. I eye the narrow space, estimating how close his 73-foot wing span must have come to the island structure.

Back down on the hangar deck, I chat with three “Yellow Shirts,” those remarkably young men whose job it had been to swiftly and safely move aircraft around the deck, to park them, to get them to the hangar deck or to the catapult, all in the seemingly chaotic conditions and piercing noise of flight operations. Today, they express amazement at how unaware they were—at 19 or so—of the historic importance of what they were a part of that July afternoon. “We had to bring the helicopter, still holding the astronauts, down from the flight deck to the hangar by the elevator,” says one. Another one smiles, reminiscing, “One of my jobs was to make sure President Richard Nixon’s favorite beverage, Fresca, was cold.”

President Richard M. Nixon speaks with the Apollo 11 astronauts inside the Mobile Quarantine Facility aboard USS Hornet on 24 July 1969.
(NHHC)

Rolf Sabye, president of the Hornet Association—a group of people who work, volunteer, and donate to ensure the Hornet will be preserved—informed us that the organization was hosting a dinner and “Meet and Greet” occasions during the week-long event, when people could ask crew members about their experiences.

(Courtesy of the Author)

I am intrigued by the variety of tasks they performed 50 years ago. “I hemmed the canvas that became the Apollo 11 banner,” said one. Another added, “My job was to keep the deck clean and paint the ship.” Still another: “My job was to steer the ship as the helicopter brought the astronauts aboard.”

Hundreds of young men doing very specific jobs.

The Mobile Quarantine Facility containing the Apollo 11 astronauts is offloaded from USS Hornet at Pearl Harbor on 26 July 1969.
(NHHC)

Some tasks were of a more scientific nature. A college graduate student was given the job of cutting and studying the moon rocks after the recovery. “They were something like asteroids,” he remembers, ”except they had a much denser metal content.”

(Courtesy of the Author)

We hear from one of the helo pilots and from the physician who checked out the astronauts. There was the coordinator in charge of safety, including that of the decontamination chamber. A swimmer who helped the astronauts into the helicopter told of seeing the helo carry the astronauts away and then playing “King of the Mountain” on the capsule with the other swimmers.

At the dinner, there was talk of the future, a future that would be different. Everyone on board the Hornet 50 years ago was male. Tonight, a female astronaut discusses plans for building a habitat for humans on the moon. Another woman, director of Project Orion, talked of the next big challenge: going to Mars.

(Courtesy of the USS Hornet Museum)

Her words stayed with me: “We look forward to the anniversary of the next 50 years of space travel.” She finishes with the vision of that 100th anniversary possibly being held at a distant location in space.

I want to feel the vision she is offering, but a part of me is thinking of the tremendous challenges humankind is facing right here, right now, on this planet, our planet. Then, I remember the small boy on the hangar deck, joyfully following the footsteps of the astronauts across the floor. He gives me hope. Yes, I think of that little boy and others like him. They are the ones who will have the passion and the vision to get us through the next 50 years and further on our amazing journey into space.